Collection marks the dangers in life’s twists and turns
Alethea Black’s sly and emotionally complex debut collection, “I Knew You’d Be Lovely,’’ shows us men and women, young and not-so-young, who suddenly find themselves in danger.
For the most part, this danger is some looming emotional or psychological hurdle. But sometimes, as in the best story, “The Only Way Out Is Through,’’ there’s an actual gun. Out of desperation, a middle-aged dad takes his delinquent teenage son on a camping trip. Black’s description of the son resists cliché: “Derek had no nose piercings, no Mohawk, no black eyeliner, no trench coat. His face was so nakedly defiant, it was as if he didn’t need the props.’’ The dad, Fetterman, can’t help but see ominous signs everywhere, including a warning about rattlesnakes outside a gas station restroom: “An oddly placed reminder that there was no escaping danger, even during the most banal activities.’’ When Derek finally produces the pistol, Fetterman is forced to get honest with his son, and when it is fired (and not in the way the reader thinks it will be) it’s clear we’re in the hands of an author who privileges emotional resonance over gratuitous violence.
Black’s characters often struggle to find connection, to tease out the truth in a world that insists on convention. In “The Laziest Form of Revelation,’’ the narrator reflects on a doomed affair with a painter: “[H]e taught me one thing I’ll never forget: We all desire the cut of truth.’’
The author’s unflinching candor allows her to mine extraordinary revelations from seemingly mundane moments. In “Good in a Crisis’’ a high school English teacher questions her calling: “Against her better wishes, she’d become an enforcer of the picayune. Her students must have perceived her failure; with the wisdom of children, they sensed that she had chosen the easy path in life, and they resented her for it.’’ This realization drives her to seek out her own favorite teacher from high school, a man who teaches her as much about desire as he once did about poetry.
Black’s agile narrators have a knack for bringing both the past and future to bear on the present moment. In the story “Double-blind,’’ for instance, her heroine observes, “If I look closely enough, all the chords of our four years together were struck that first night: Ben’s eccentricity, his warmth, his need for me to prove my love. As were my desire to please him, my skepticism, my ultimate inability to see things the way he did. All the notes of our undoing were there, alongside the notes of our joy.’’
If these stories have a fault, it’s that sometimes they can be too clever. In “Mollusk Makes a Comeback’’ a lonely young woman finds herself out of a job for answering a phone: “Thanks for helping, can I hold you?’’ There are also times when the stories make assertions about characters that are never quite dramatized.
These are small complaints, however, in an otherwise stunning collection. As an added bonus, the author has included notes on the stories, which provide a fascinating peak into her writing process. We learn that the story “The Summer Before,’’ was taken from the author’s experience growing up as the oldest of four sisters, and that “Good in a Crisis’’ was inspired by the author’s own foray into the world of personal ad dating.
In the end, though, it’s the stories themselves that deserve our attention. For it’s here that we experience the emotional danger that does lurk beneath the placid surface of the everyday, and a writer who is not afraid to guide us there with humor and compassion.
Erin Almond, a freelance writer in the Boston area, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.